Black, White, and Gray

Our work here is fun and challenging and we are learning a lot.  I love getting to use my business background to bring fresh ideas to solve problems in a company whose work I believe in.  But some days, it feels like we are emptying the ocean with an eye-dropper.  The problem with working in a third world country, is that if you are in any kind of management position, you are also suddenly the head of human resources.  You suddenly must deal with complicated, personal issues involving staff and must make decisions based on what you believe to be the correct answer. What I’m learning is that there are very rarely situations that are just right and wrong, black and white.  Usually the problems fall somewhere between the two.

Shortly after we arrived in Malawi, a good friend told us that his daughter was quite sick.  She had been seen in small clinics in Lilongwe, but the xray machines were so old that the doctors actually couldn’t read the results.  Even if the machines had been brand new and the doctors able to read the results, the chances of those clinics having the proper medicine was slim.  When we asked our friend how much it would cost to send her to a better clinic, he told us probably the equivalent of $20.  Andrew and I didn’t even discuss it.  We gave him the money right then and told her to see the doctor that day.  After a three nights stay in the hospital, her bill only came out to $35 and it was money very well spent.

About a month later our friend came to us and told us that this same daughter was about to start her third year of accounting school.   This is extremely rare in Malawi and in all of Africa for that matter.  When parents don’t have the money to pay for secondary school or high school fees (primary school is free), it is almost always the girls who drop out of school first.  For a women to be entering her third year of accounting school is a huge feat and we are so proud of her.   But there’s a catch.  Our friend does not have the $330 dollars that would pay for her third year.  He asked us if we could pay for it.

A little background….Malawians do not plan for the future.  The thought of saving money in a paycheck is so foreign to them that it almost never happens.  Our manager works extensively with the staff here to help them save their money.  A few of them even have savings accounts in the bank.    Also, in Malawi people take care of their friends.   Is our friend taking advantage of us? Yes.  Is he asking us for money because he considers us a friend?  Yes.  If he did not believe us to be friends, he wouldn’t have asked.  This cultural nuance is hard to wrap your mind around, or at least it was for us.

A little more background…A girl who had previously worked for World Camp had given our friend the tuition money for his daughter’s  first year of accounting school.  The money obviously ran out and he contacted her to tell her.  She then gave him what she believed would be enough money to cover the next 3 years of school.  That money is now gone only one year later.

At first we felt like he wasn’t our friend at all.  We are white people and as far as he was concerned, we have giant dollar signs tattooed on our foreheads.  After thinking through the cultural implications, we decided this actually wasn’t the case.  He is looking for a hand out, but he is asking us because he likes us.  Weird, I know.

When our friend asked us, I immediately felt a pit form in my stomach.  Andrew always says I have good intuition and in this case, my intuition was speaking to me loud and clear.  Before the conversation was even over, I knew I would not be giving him this money.  I didn’t have a clear reason why yet, but I knew in my stomach that it wasn’t the right thing to do.

We considered paying for one term. What good is paying part of someone’s tuition if they don’t have the money for the rest?  We considered paying for two terms. We considered giving him an interest free loan. We considered paying for the whole thing.  But no matter which way we discussed the situation, neither of us felt right about paying for any of it somehow.  The most obvious answer wasn’t the right one.


You might be thinking, “gosh guys, it’s only three hundred bucks, pay the dang bill so this girl can go to school.”  Yes, that is an easy solution.  A band-aid solution.  The trouble is that this problem goes much deeper than just paying for a term or a year of her schooling.  Her father knew this day was coming, knew this bill was due, and he didn’t save for it and neither did she.   The only reason that I have anything that I have is because my parents worked their whole lives to provide for me, and now my fiancé and I both work to provide for ourselves.   And even though that is true, I started working when I was fifteen and I still remember the day when my dad helped me open my own checking and savings account shortly after.  I was lucky to have parents that taught me how to budget my money and save it so that I can do the things that I want to do, or travel when I want to.  No, I do not understand these people’s situation and I don’t pretend to.  But I do understand the value of hard work and innovation and being creative to raise money.

Yes, it would be easy to pay for a year of her term.  I can’t say we wouldn’t miss the money (we’re not working in Africa to get rich), but I believe that would be doing them a gross injustice.  That money will inevitably run out.  Then what? Who will pay for her final year of schooling?  Who will pay for his other nine children to go to school?  We would be leaving him an unsustainable solution.  After three sleepless nights, and many hours of discussion, we told our friend that we would not be paying for his daughters’ school.  We told him we want nothing more than for her to finish school, and after explaining to him why this isn’t the solution to the problem because it isn’t sustainable, I think he began to understand, even if he was disappointed.

Instead, Andrew is working on drawing up a savings plan for him and for his daughter.  She currently isn’t working.  Andrew and I told him that she should be out every single day applying for jobs, or starting a small business herself to help earn the fees.  Sitting around and waiting for someone to pay your way isn’t the answer.   The banks here pay between 7%-14% interest for savings accounts! In case you haven’t been to your bank recently, that is a LOT!   We’re working on drawing up this plan and helping him to see it through.  Our hope is that this will be a sustainable answer to the problem of not having enough money for things such as schooling.  If we can teach him to save his money, the importance of being innovative and finding a need in a market that you can fill, then I think we will be helping him for much longer than just the year that the school fees would have helped.

Our friend’s heart is in the right place.  He wants the best for his children and that is commendable, especially in Malawi where parents all to often don’t see the value of education.  But giving another handout wasn’t the answer, and although it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I feel confident that we made the right decision.

But wait!  There’s an even bigger problem!

For so long, white people have been coming to Africa and handing out money like it’s candy.   We’ve handed out clothes and shoes and books and pencils.  When I donate money to causes like that it sure makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside because hey, I’m doing something good!  I’m buying my cute TOMS because some little kid across the world gets a pair of shoes too!  But what happens to the shoe peddler who used to make shoes for the village?  What happens when TOMS comes in and passes out shoes for everyone?  The shoe peddler is out of business, and people stop coming up with innovative ways to make a better shoe and sell it.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a pair of TOMS sitting in my closet right now and I wear them often.  Before I came here I thought it was such a neat idea.  One for one.  But then I got to a village where TOMS had distributed shoes months before.  Not one child was actually wearing the shoes.  A few lonely shoes were scattered around the village, enough for a foreigner to recognize that the company had in fact been here.  When kids grow up without wearing shoes, they don’t really see why they should start.  Shoes prevent cuts that could lead to infection, and jiggers burrowing in their feet, but these kids see no reason to wear these new shoes and I can attest to that because I’ve seen it myself.  But their parents did see a reason to stop purchasing the shoes made of tire from their neighbor.  Why buy from him when the white people will give them out for free if you want them?   Not only did the project not work in this particular village, but the market is now saturated with shoes and anyone who made them no longer has a job, because anyone who did want shoes could get them for free. We pass out money and innovation stops.  We pass out money and people begin to depend on it.  Our friends daughter is literally sitting at home this very minute rather than working because she thought that someone was going to pay her school fees for her.  Something is wrong with this picture.

There are certainly times when aid is desperately needed.  We paid for our friends hospital visit because she was ill and wouldn’t have gotten treatment otherwise.  I am a huge advocate of feeding programs in schools.  No child should be hungry, and they can’t be expected to learn if they are.  I think drilling water bore holes in villages that don’t have access to that kind of technology is great.  I think giving clothes to someone who has been wearing the same shirt for thirty years is fine.  But we must be more selective about where our money is going.  Too often our foreign aid gets caught at the top level and makes its way into pockets of powerful people and the poor never see any of it.   I think a better option than passing out money is to pass out skills.  Teach people a marketable skill so they can feed themselves and never have to rely on you again.  When we put boreholes in the ground, we must train someone in the village to fix it when it breaks or malfunctions.  This will provide a job and people with skills that they can use in other villages.

All of it is so confusing and I’m still wrestling with it and trying to figure it out.  There’s not much black and white here, just a whole lot of gray.

Disclaimer: I don’t know much at all about TOMS business practices and what I’ve said here is simply my observation in only one village here in Malawi.  I recently saw that TOMS is doing a new project with sunglasses. I’m assuming “one for one” still applies and they will give people glasses.  This seems like a really neat and much needed project, so props to TOMS!


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